Old media’s new magic

Social media’s urgency during Haiti’s tragedy proves more newsworthy than traditional news’ self-obsession

On January 12, an earthquake ripped through the Caribbean country of Haiti, and Facebook and Twitter lit up with dire messages:

“oh shiet heavy earth quake right now! in haiti”

“ in touch again with my friend, a new aftershock just happen, lot of emotions …”

“ Just about all the lights are out in Port au Prince … people still screaming but the noise is dying as darkness sets.”

Initially, some 100,000 people were thought dead and—even as the earthquake raged—raw and disheartening (and, at times, hopeful) live messages came directly from the scene of devastation right onto our computer screens almost instantaneously. Even people who doubted the relevance of social media (like me) couldn’t have been skeptical about the power of the immediate message. The rushed prose (marked by misspellings and fragmented thoughts) of real-time text gave tragic weight to the devastation.

Social media relayed a message that was urgent and clear: People here are dying by the thousands. And we need help.

Soon thereafter, traditional news outlets gave shape to the grim text by airing footage, shot by amateur cameramen, who stepped cautiously through Haiti’s wreckage. One shaky camera pointed at a seemingly lifeless arm hanging out of a collapsed building while a man down below reached up to grab it. Another caught a group of people huddled around a woman lying in the street. Her shirt was caked in blood. Men barged through crumbling neighborhoods in packs, carrying boxes out of broken storefronts, shouting in Creole, hoisting fists up in the air.

Then on January 13, in America, conservative Christian preacher Pat Robertson opened up his show, The 700 Club, by saying that Haiti’s geographic devastation was the result of “a pact to the devil” and, at that very moment, you could almost watch the media’s collective head turning away from the smoky wreckage of Haiti and fixing its gaze back onto something more familiar: America.

After all, we have a lot going on here.

We have conservative talk-show host Rush Limbaugh, who suggested to a caller that President Barack Obama was delighted by Haiti’s misfortune because he saw the tragedy as a gleaming political opportunity. And we have Glenn Beck and Bill O’Reilly, who both suggested that Obama acted too quickly in his response to Haiti. Why didn’t he act as swiftly to the Fort Hood killer and to Umar Farouk Abdulmutallab? they asked. (Well, for one, because those two were apprehended, and no man, not even the president of the United States of America, is powerful enough to apprehend a natural disaster.)

And before we knew it, the reaction of American celebrity hosts became the focus of the Haitian tragedy. Television and Internet became mere forums to damn Robertson, Limbaugh and Beck. They were wrong, we say, insensitive, clueless and inappropriate oafs, who—well, goddamnit, how dare they!

Like some cruel trick, the clear message of Haiti’s ravages became hazy in the tragedy of a televised blame game taking place in America.

It’s the new magic of the old media.

And in the time it takes me to find a pen to formulate a letter to the editor about how outraged I am regarding the last stupid and insensitive thing that some irrelevant religious leader said, a couple of sentences appear in a box on my screen. It’s a Twitter message from Haiti, which says, “It’s really ugly, just like in a bad dream. people need help, get out and help!”